THE BLACK CAT (1987) Op.28

Piano Score $25.00


Cello + Narrator part $10.00

Opus number: 28

Title: The Black Cat

Instrumentation: narrator, cello, piano (text by Edgar Allan Poe)

Date written: 1987, Viriginia Center for the Creative Arts

Length: twenty-one minutes

Commissioner and dedicatee: Eric Bartlett

Premiere performance:  Eric Bartlett, cellist, Wu Han, pianist, Larry Bell, narrator, April 1988, 92nd St. YMHA, New York City

Important subsequent performances: Eric Bartlett, cellist, Wu Han, pianist, Larry Bell, narrator, Longy School, Boston, 1988; Andrés Díaz, cellist, Michael Dewart, pianist, Steven McConnell, narrator, March 5, 1991, Boston Conservatory; Harry Clark, cellist, Sanda Schuldmann, pianist, Robert J. Lurtsema, narrator, Chamber Music Plus, Hartford, Conn., October 27, 1991; Eric Bartlett, cellist, Larry Bell, pianist, Robert J. Lurtsema, narrator, April 10, 1998, Boston Conservatory

Recordings: Eric Bartlett, cellist, Larry Bell, pianist, Robert J. Lurtsema, narrator, North/South Recordings #1018; tapes of two performances at The Boston Conservatory library, McConnell, Díaz, Dewart, and Lurtsema, Barteltt, Bell.

Program notes: “The Black Cat” harkens back to the monodrama made popular in the nineteenth century by Franz Liszt’s melodramas such as Der Traurige Monch. Richard Strauss’s later monodrama Enoch Arden, recorded by Claude Reins and Glenn Gould, helped inspire my ghost-story setting of Edgar Allan Poe’s familiar tale of murder and madness.

I augment the monodrama’s typical narrator-and-piano instrumentation to include a cello. The cello represents the cat; the piano portrays the man telling the story and also sets the climate for the individual scenes. The cello has its own leitmotifs, for example, the tri-tone glissando that mimics a “meow” similar to the effect found in Ravel’s animal opera. The music is based on the opening melody in G-sharp minor (frequently necessitating the F double-sharp scull-and-crossbones on the page). Although the narrator’s part is not notated musically, I carefully connected the words with the accompanying music. Poe’s characteristic blend of the horrible and the ordinary is not without moments of humor–after all, a grown man is driven crazy by an innocent small animal!

            The Black Cat (1987) was commissioned by and is dedicated to cellist Eric Bartlett, who, along with the composer, is a cat lover.

Reviews: [performance] “In reviving an outmoded and melodramatic 19th-century form, the composer assiduously avoided sticking tongue in cheek, writing into the music a  torrent of kitschy effects that Liszt himself might have appreciated. A rising tri-tone glissando on the  cello simulated the cat’s meow, for example, and the pianist (Wu Han) played tremolos and arpeggios to indicate the narrator’s increasing distress.” –Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times (May 1, 1988)

[recording] “Could the melodrama be coming back?  . . . Larry Bell’s The Black Cat sets Edgar Allan Poe’s famous tale of a man driven to insanity by the presence of first his own black cat, which he kills, and its replacement. The latter disrupts his already perilous hold on sanity, and, after driving him to murder his wife, manages to reveal the presence of the corpse to the authorities. The narrator tell[s] his tale while awaiting hanging for the murder. Bell gives the character of the cat to the cello, making much use of the instrument’s capacity for a variety of other-worldly effects, while the piano portrays the narrator as well as setting the scene. It is a very effective work. Perhaps the highest compliment that one can pay is that the music adds to the power and effectiveness of Robert J. Lurtsema’s narration (Lurtsema is the voice of WGBH Boston and is thus familiar to all fans of public televsion.)

“. . . The performances center around Eric Bartlett, a member of the New York Philharmonic and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The recorded sound is very good. This is a fine release.” –John Story, Fanfare May/June 1999

“Larry Bell, who holds the doctorate from Juilliard, has won a long list of prizes and grants, and teaches at the New England Conservatory. This disc offers four compositions which differ widely in mood and performing forces. The Black Cat, a monodrama, is an adaptation of a horror story by Edgar Allan Poe. A narrator relates the tale, ‘the cello represents the cat; the piano portrays the man telling the story and also sets the climate for the individual scenes’ in which ‘a grown man is driven crazy by an innocent small animal’ (liner notes) . . .

“The music once again combines traditional and modern sounds–an intriguing and satisfying union. The performances are first-rate (Bartlett is Acting Associate Principal cellist of the New York Philharmonic). It is exciting to find new and rewarding literature for cello!” –Jocelyn Mackey, Pan Pipes Fall 1999

The last work is a melodrama for narrator, cello and piano based on Poe’s taleThe Black Cat which the composer quite efficiently adapted from the original, leaving out many of the asides and thus tightening the narration. The cello represents the cat whose ‘meow’ is aptly stylised by a glissando, whereas the piano represents the narrator and sets the scene of the various episodes of the story. A superbly written and highly entertaining piece well worth a hearing. -Hubert Culot, (Jan. 2003)